Author Archives: David Tenser

Bluetooth speakers — grossly overpriced?

Took a day off today and spent some time researching bluetooth hi-fi, and I’ve got one big question that begs an answer: Why is one tiny little bluetooth speaker more expensive than a high-quality 2.1 speaker system coupled with a high-quality bluetooth receiver? This makes absolutely no sense to me, no matter how I look at it.

The so-called “BIG” Jambox. Photo cc by Gadgetmac.

Let’s take an example. If you search for popular bluetooth speakers that have reasonable sound quality, you’ll stumble across many reviews of either the Bose Soundlink II (from $299) or the so-called Jawbone BIG Jambox ($295). They generally get very positive reviews and are praised for their high quality sound for their small sizes. Let’s be clear about that, btw: these speakers are tiny. Maybe I’m getting old, but when I was in my 20’s, you’d have a hard time finding any stereo system where one of the speakers were as small as a “BIG” Jambox or a Bose Soundlink.

Now, for significantly less money than one of these tiny bluetooth speakers, you could get a high-quality 2.1 speaker system with built-in amp (e.g. the very powerful, though admittedly not so sleek Pioneer system priced at $145) and then plug in a small bluetooth receiver — the uPlay Puck is supposedly a great one (£60), but there are cheaper ones for around $30 too. You now have a bluetooth speaker system for roughly $200 that will sound significantly better than any $300 all-in-one bluetooth speaker currently on the market.

I tried both the BIG Jambox and the Soundlink II today and the sound was admittedly impressive given the size of the speakers, but these speakers just can’t compare even with an old Creative 2.1 computer speaker system I bought some ten years ago for around $75!

So why are these tiny (and tinny) bluetooth speakers so incredibly expensive for what they are? Is portability really that important to people? Or is it just the relative novelty of this all-in-one speaker form factor that makes people want to pay a premium for being able to carry the speaker around and to bring it with them on vacations? Don’t get me wrong — I too like the idea portability, but to a slightly lesser extent. I would like the ability to move the speaker between e.g. the bedroom and kitchen, and maybe even the patio on a hot summer day. But there are limits to how much I’m willing to sacrifice audio quality, and besides, I would have no problem carrying the speaker around even if it were 5x as heavy as one of these tiny speakers.

My specific needs would be something equally self-contained and simple as the Bose Soundlink II (meaning one single unit) but with significantly larger speakers built in. Something like a 4-5 kg heavy unit that I could still carry around from room to room but without the big sacrifice in sound quality. Battery would definitely be a bonus, but not a hard requirement. And please, no AirPlay or other nasty proprietary solutions — I’m perfectly happy with bluetooth as long as it has that 3.5mm input jack for those moments when I feel pickier about my fidelity. It should definitely support the apt-X protocol over bluetooth though — this was another thing I learned today: there are different types of bluetooth audio codecs and apt-X is much closer to CD quality, but is unfortunately still pretty rare in dedicated bluetooth speakers (neither the BIG Jambox nor the Bose Soundlink II has support for it, for example).

So basically, take a 2.1 sound system and a little bluetooth receiver and a little battery and put it all in one beautiful case. But here’s the catch: it shouldn’t cost much more than its tinier siblings, because frankly, the technology exists already and is, as I’ve already demonstrated, very inexpensive.

Is this all too much to ask for? Has anyone else gone through the same research and had the same questions as I have here? Is there a compromise out there that doesn’t come with pointless AirPlay support and proprietary iDevice docks that I’d never use? Are there any sound systems with bluetooth support that are reasonably portable but still prioritize sound quality and don’t cost a fortune? I’m not asking for a system that would rival my home cinema — just something that sounds good and is fairly portable (in the 1980’s sense). If you have any advice, please leave a comment in the comments section of this post!

Portable is a relative term after all. Photo cc by eeetthaannn.

Logitech HD Pro Webcam C920 review

I recently replaced the webcam I use for video conferences at Mozilla and since I’m going back to my roots a bit with this blog, I thought I’d post a review about it here since that’s what the old me would have done without blinking. ;) I previously owned a Creative Live! Socialize HD 1080p webcam for about 6 months, a full HD capable webcam with supposedly excellent quality. I was using Windows 7 at the time, and the webcam came with an app for changing settings like brightness, white balance, gamma and other stuff. It worked reasonably well, but it always struggled with reproducing natural colors in dim light. No matter how you adjusted the image settings, the camera would render almost black/white or something resembling sepia colors, with lots of grain.

Due to a little bed table accident at a hotel room in Mountain View, I switched from Windows to Mac a couple of months ago (which probably is a story worthy a separate blog post). This is when the limitations of the Creative webcam really started to become unbearable, because now I didn’t have any app to adjust the webcam settings anymore since there is no Mac support. Luckily there was another minor hardware problem with the webcam so I was able to return it to the store for a full refund. So now I was on the hunt for a new webcam again, this time preferably with Mac and Windows support (since I’ll hopefully be able to switch to Windows 8 at some point — I still hate Macs).

C920_CTG_3_610x645I quickly homed in on the Logitech C920 webcam after a recommendation from William Quiviger, but when looking up the specs of it, it turned out that it didn’t have Mac support either. I ended up in countless of angry threads online about the outrageous fact that the C920 didn’t have Mac support when its predecessor C910 had. Well, I ended up getting the C920 anyway because I didn’t like the idea of buying the previous generation, and Logitech’s own support reps on their site even mentioned in a thread that the support in C910 wasn’t that great. And everyone seemed to rave about the picture quality of the C9x0 in general, so I thought I’d take a chance.

And boy did this camera exceed my expectations! Sure, there is no Mac support in that you can’t modify settings like white balance, brightness, saturation, gamma, etc…. but the reality is, you don’t need it. This camera adjust perfectly to any lighting condition! I’ve used this in daylight, during nighttime with an energy light bulb, and even in the darkness with the cold light from my 24″ monitor lighting up my face. Regardless of light source, the camera just adjusts perfectly and renders colors that don’t want me to cover up my face in late night meetings with my colleagues overseas. In comparison, the Creative camera that I owned previously made my face completely blue due to the harsh monitor light.

So, although you can’t modify any settings if you’re on a Mac, I still highly recommend this webcam as it adjusts perfectly and has stunning image quality. I certainly have never used a better webcam. And if you’re running Windows, the webcam is probably an even better choice.

Kindle Paperwhite a step back in many aspects, still desirable

Back in October, I was a proud owner of a Kindle Paperwhite for about two days after a quick decision to return it. Here is my review of it based on our brief acquaintance. Despite this mostly negative review, I’m actually still thinking about buying one. If you own one, I’d love to hear about your experiences so far! Anyway, my feedback in summary:

  • Amazon’s quality control sucks, or the product was rushed to market.
  • There was uneven lighting across the entire screen of my device, but it wasn’t a big deal to me.
  • The claimed 25% contrast increase is simply a lie.
  • PDF support has taken a step back with some complex documents no longer loading.
  • The experimental web browser is harder to scroll with than the Kindle 4.
  • Amazon’s beautiful leather cover is much heavier than expected.

Quality control

I read many of the initial customer reviews on amazon.com before I got my own unit and many of them complained about uneven lighting, especially at the bottom of the screen. When I got my device, I was already prepared for the worst — part of me was even ready to be pleasantly surprised and say “the unevenness wasn’t so bad after all” like some others had written in their reviews on Amazon.

Unfortunately, the latter didn’t happen. I knew I would have to return it the minute I opened the sleek black package. When starting it up for the first time, I immediately noticed a gray little dot in the dark area of the boot-up image. Hoping that it was just dust on the screen, I tried to wipe it off with my finger, but that didn’t work. Then the screen flicked over to white for the introduction pages, and the little dot remained there, now appearing black. After some additional research (including using my Olympus 45mm lens reversed as a loupe), I could confirm that the dot was indeed some e-ink or dust particle that was “stuck” on the screen, underneath the light layer — in fact, it was even visible when the device was turned off. After I had discovered that spot, it didn’t matter that it was smaller than most dust particles. I had seen it and I couldn’t un-see it.

Built-in light

The uneven light shown at the bottom of the screen. (Photo by archie4oz.)

Yes, the lighting was uneven, too. My unit had stronger lighting in the lower-left corner, as well as some blotches with darker colors. The most off-white area was at the bottom where the four led light shines out. Some of that light in the center had a pink/blue hue. Then there were some subtle shadows at the top. Honestly, these color differences ddidn’t bother me much at all — when you pulled the light intensity down, you barely noticed it. And that’s how the screen should be used anyway, otherwise reading on the Paperwhite is as bad for your eyes as reading on a computer screen. Don’t buy the myth that one type of light is worse than the other depending on whether the light shines into your eyes rather than onto a surface and then into your eyes. The reason why your eyes can see things is because light particles (photons) hit the retina in your eyes. It’s the same with the Paperwhite. The trick to avoid fatigue is to keep light at a low setting so that the screen doesn’t shine brighter than the surrounding. This is easy to achieve with the Paperwhite with its many light levels, but, honestly, you can achieve that with virtually any tablet and mobile phone too. If you’re using an Android phone, check out my review of the Screen Filter app to learn how you can achieve incredibly dim brightness when reading with the Kindle app. But anyway, the Paperwhite has an adjustable built-in light that can get incredibly dim, making it suitable for reading in a pitch dark room. But at the bottom of the screen, there is a shadowy area that just doesn’t disappear regardless of the brightness setting.

As a side-note (literally), it’s funny that the margin settings of the Paperwhite don’t allow you to increase the bottom margin, given that the light is the most uneven there. Changing the margin only affects the sides of the screen. You can change to Landscape Mode if you really want to avoid reading on the uneven part of the screen. However, unlike the old Kindle 4, the Paperwhite will change back to Portrait Mode when you go to the Home screen, meaning you have to rotate your device back and forth when switching between books. Annoying. The Kindle 4 kept its rotation setting even on the home screen.

Contrast

About the claimed 25% increase in contrast, I can’t spot an improvement in any lighting environment. You’d think that 25% better contrast would be noticed immediately, but no. Comparing the Kindle 4 and the Paperwhite side by side with both devices turned off, showing the exact same ad cover, the Paperwhite screen is surprisingly slightly darker (the “white” area being more yellow) than the Kindle 4! If you use a strong flashlight on both screens, it’s easy to see the light emission layer on the Paperwhite, which is likely what makes the screen slightly darker/yellow compared to the Kindle 4 screen. Crank up the lighting to 5-6 (still a very low setting), and there is a noticeable increase in brightness. The contrast doesn’t increase though, since the black then becomes a little more blue instead. Maybe if you’re comparing the screens in bright sunlight you can see the improved contrast? But I doubt it.

Paperwhite to the left, Kindle 4 to the right. Real, actually white paper in between.

When it comes to measuring contrast, the only honest way of doing it is by measuring it in equally bright environments. This means that if Amazon is comparing the Paperwhite with the Kindle 4 — one with a built-in light and the other one without it — they have to compare the screens with the built-in light of the Paperwhite turned completely off. Based on what I can see with my own eyes, it seems like they just pulled a false marketing stunt and compared the Kindle 4 with the Paperwhite set to a reasonable brightness setting and placed them both in a dim room. Of course the Paperwhite wins in those circumstances, but that’s cheating.

Resolution & fonts

The increase in resolution is there, however, but I have to say the improvement is barely noticeable. You can definitely see it if you look for it, but when reading a book I never noticed it. I could see it when loading a busy PDF file with charts and tiny text though. Really, the most notable improvement in terms of readability is the new fonts. I loved reading with the Palatino font at the second-lowest size — that felt close to reading a real book. If the Kindle 4 had that font, I think I’d be pretty happy with continuing to read on that device.

PDF support

The PDF support has taken a slight step back. I immediately noticed that one of my 100+ pages PDF wouldn’t load. After trying to load it, the Paperwhite shows an error message saying “Unable to Open Item” because “The title is too large for available memory.” The K4 opens the PDF just fine. Also, flicking pages is surprisingly faster on the K4 when reading a PDF. Was the CPU downgraded or is it underclocked in the Paperwhite? The slowness when paging PDFs seems to be related to the complexity of the PDF. Try e.g. downloading the Olympus E-M5 user manual PDF and you’ll see what I mean. When reading normal e-books, page flicking is perhaps slightly faster on the Paperwhite compared to K4, but both devices are pretty darn fast.

Touch screen & experimental browser

I love the touch screen and don’t mind the lack of page turn buttons on the Paperwhite. However, this has unfortunately rendered the experimental web browser a bit useless, since there is no way to easily scroll down page by page anymore. Instead, you have to swipe like you would on your mobile device — but that’s not fun on an e-ink screen when a swipe only scrolls a few lines after about a second of blinking and thinking. Even if you switch to the (otherwise) very useful Article Mode, you can’t easily scroll down a full page with a single tap. The tap zones apparently only work in books. What a shame on an otherwise excellent (for being on e-ink) web browser. Of course, actually typing on the Paperwhite is a thousand times better than the Kindle 4 since that device lacks a keyboard. But actually reading a bookmarked web page is much more convenient on the Kindle 4.

Leather cover

Lastly, I also ordered the Paperwhite Leather Cover with my Kindle to complete the experience, and because I need some sort of protection when I’m traveling. The cover looks good, even though the leather felt a bit cheap and thin. The magnet with its auto-on feature makes it very convenient to use though. However, it was much heavier than I expected. With the Paperwhite in it, it felt disappointingly heavy, probably twice as heavy as my Kindle 4.

Also, the $40 price tag felt like a ripoff for what it was. For that kind of money, I’d rather spend it on a Saddleback Leather gadget sleeve, which has infinitely higher quality leather and a 100 year guarantee. Definitely a better option if you just want a case for protection when traveling or storing it. Or if you want a cheap protection that you keep on the device at all time, I recommend the MoKo Kindle Cover which currently sells for $12.99 (though was just $9.99 when I ordered mine a couple of months ago).

Conclusion

You already know I returned it, but honestly, I could have lived with the uneven lighting, the slight steps back in web browsing and PDF support, and the increase weight of the overall package. Ultimately it was the dead “pixel” that became the showstopper for me because I couldn’t stop looking at it and frankly I expected better quality control than that. Also, I was traveling for work and wouldn’t have time to allow Amazon to send me a replacement unit, so I decided to return the whole package, including the case. Amazon’s customer service was excellent and very understanding. Big thumbs up to hassle-free returns!

But here’s the twist: I still want this device. The main reason why is because I find myself reading mostly in dim environments. I live in Sweden, so it’s basically dark the entire winter (the sun sets at about 3:30pm this week), and I also read the most in bed. And the reason why reading on my Galaxy Note isn’t good enough is that it’s too tempting to switch to another task on that device, like browsing the web, reading my e-mail, or playing a game. I like the idea of having a device dedicated solely to reading, but the Kindle 4 unfortunately isn’t it because of its lack of built-in light.

I’m still monitoring the reviews on Amazon from time to time and it looks like the average score has gone up. Maybe it’s a good sign that they’re getting their quality control issues sorted out. I might order one again the next time I travel to the Bay Area, but I’ll skip the cover this time and buy something else to protect it. If you already own a Paperwhite, I’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments section below.

Servers, blogs and freedom

Notice anything different? Yes, my blog has a new theme and a slightly concatenated address, but you probably wouldn’t even realize that since I blog about once per year… No, the real changes are under ze hood!

A couple of weeks ago my little Mini-ITX based computer in my closet that acts as my file and web server decided that it didn’t want to start anymore. I panicked at first because I had not performed a full data backup in ages, but thankfully it turned out that the hard drive — the Mother modem if you will — was still working perfectly, so I was able to plug it into another old computer I had lying around.

Young FrankensteinOne really cool thing about Ubuntu Server (and indeed Linux in general) is that it happily continues to run almost regardless of what hardware change around it. Taking out the Mother modem and plugging it into another computer is a bit like taking out the brain of a human and planting it into another body. My new temporary server continued to tick without even the slightest hiccup (albeit way slower on this charmingly clunky 256 MB RAM monster).

With the data backup taken care of, I decided that I’m done tinkering with my own server for now. It’s too much hassle and the risks are too high that if something breaks, you have to spend a considerable amount of time trying to get things back up again. For my modest purposes (a file server for music and movies, and a web server for my blog) it simply wasn’t worth paying for new hardware and going through the trouble of restoring it. Instead, I decided to tackle my two small needs separately:

  1. The blog — I needed a place to host my blog.
  2. The files — I needed a way to access my movies and music on my network to use in XBMC hooked up to my home cinema.

1. The blog

For the blog, I could either host it for free at e.g. wordpress.com, or I could pay a service provider to host my own custom install for me. The former would be free, but the latter would give me more flexibility. I decided on something in between: I’m using wordpress.com to host the blog for free, but I’m paying them to connect my old domain djst.org to it. This is why the address of this blog had to change from djst.org/blog to simply djst.org, because the domain hosts nothing but the blog now. Old permalinks from djst.org/blog/* magically continues to work though — except specifically djst.org/blog, which randomly shows an old blog post from 2006 about a new kitchen table (oh the memories!).

One thing that really impressed me with WordPress is its export and import feature. After getting my Frankenstein server up and running again, I was able to export all posts, pages, comments and categories into one single xml file and then I could just create a blog on wordpress.com and import that file on there. Within a minute, all of my posts and their related tags and comments were living in a new home.

But what about all the uploaded images that go along with the posts? Well, it turns out that the import script automatically fetches all references files in blog posts and uploads them to the new blog location too (though I had to make sure that the old blog was publicly accessible for it to work, which took me a couple of import attempts to get right).

Another thing that impressed me was wordpress.com’s forum support. I had a couple of questions there and one volunteer named tandava108 always provided answers within the hour. Getting a quick response when you’re having a problem or a question is such an important aspect of customer support, so wordpress.com should count themselves lucky to have someone like tandava108 in their forums (just like we are really lucky to have awesome superheroes like cor-el, madperson and jscher2000 in the SUMO forum).

My temporary Frankenstein server with its guts exposed.

2. The files

This one was easy — all I had to do was to plug in an external hard drive to the USB port of my router and voilà, I had wireless access to music and movies again. If you’re curious, I’m using a Netgear WNDR3700v2 router and the configuration process was very straightforward. I’m not too happy about that router for other reasons, btw, but that’s another story.

I must say that it’s a relief to not have a server to worry about anymore. My nerd/hack level has gradually decreased over the years, but it wasn’t until the server broke down that I realized just how little I needed one these days. It feels great to know that I don’t have to worry ever again about my blog getting lost due to a server meltdown.

One awesomely designed support center and what makes it rock

Inspired by Desk.com’s article titled 12 Awesomely Designed Support Centers and What Makes Them Rock, I decided to take the opportunity to demonstrate why our very own help center, support.mozilla.org (SUMO) is way better than all of their twelve help centers combined. ;)

Although their article reads more as a showcase of some of the companies that happened to choose them as their support service provider (which we would never do, since our site is powered by our very own, superior and open-sourced CMS Kitsune), it’s still interesting to look at what they view as great design decisions in a help center to see how we compare.

Here are the main themes of their feedback that I distilled:

1. “The site looks great on all devices from mobile to desktop … The layout of the site is clean and makes it easy to navigate on any device”

We’re mighty proud of the mobile-optimized view of SUMO. It’s one of the most beautifully designed mozilla.org web properties ever made and it works across all mobile platforms. Bram did a fantastic job with the design, and it will fit our future Firefox OS support site like a glove:

          

You can try this out right away by navigating to support.mozilla.org with your Android or iPhone device. And if you’re one of the lucky few with a Firefox OS testing device, our site obviously works just as well there. :)

2. “The uncluttered design and iconography makes it easy to find information … The iconography makes topics easy to identify and stand out”

Our design uses beautiful icons to organize the content into help topics based on what users most commonly look for on our website. We tested this with paper prototyping before implementing it to make sure that the taxonomy and overall design was ideal for our unique product portfolio.

Our help topics area has beautiful icons

3. “The ability to view support center by topics or by articles is a great way to organize content … The organization of content makes it simple to find the exact answers you need”

We really went the extra mile on this one. In our user studies, we noticed that users have different behaviors when it comes to navigating to the answer to their question. Some people want to start by picking a general topic, while others prefer to pick the product they want support for first. As a result, we made sure that both of these orders work just as well on SUMO.

products and services

You can pick a topic and a product, and then we’ll show you a list of articles that matches that query. From that point, you can even filter that list down even further with the Refine and Focus feature, which allows you to pick from a more granular list of topics:

Our Refine and Focus lets you pick exactly the topic you need help with.

4. “The design is simple, clean and easy to navigate … The colors and typography are solid, strong and consistent with branding … The design is simple and clean and doesn’t distract from the important content”

The look and feel of SUMO is consistent with the overall design language of mozilla.org. This was a specific design requirement since support is an extension of the product experience. Also notice the language selector on the right — our site is available in multiple languages, and the localization is done by our amazing community of SUMO volunteers: people like our new Spanish locale leader Avelper, or my great friends and veteran Italian localizers Michele Rodaro and Underpass.

The typography and navigation elements are consistent throughout our web properties.

5. “The support center articles are well written and easy to understand”

We took great care to make sure that our articles are engaging, easy to understand and that they have a friendly tone. We also really considered the target audience and even the mood that they might be in when visiting our site (e.g. frustrated because they’re trying to figure out a solution to a problem). Great support is an important extension of the Firefox brand and the values that Mozilla stands for, so it’s important that we get this right. Our awesome content manager Michael played a huge role in making this a reality. Here are some of the support articles that capture these aspects well:

6. “There’s a ton of helpful information from community questions to how-to videos”

Videos are very powerful because they can convey lots of information very quickly and demonstrate features in ways that no texts or screenshots can ever come close to. It’s a bit like the difference between reading an article about how to play barre chords and just watching someone do it.

A video showing how to restore your previous Firefox session.

So there you have it! I love reading articles like the one on Desk.com because they make me realize just how far we’ve come at Mozilla with SUMO. Our support site is the result of lots of hard work by several teams, including of course the SUMO team, the SUMO dev team, and the UX team. And this year we’ll get even better — I’ll blog more about our plans for 2013 soon.

Bedtime reading without eye strain: Screen Filter app

If you own an Android phone with an AMOLED or similar screen, there’s a great alternative to a front lit e-ink reader like Kindle Paperwhite or Kobo Glo. It’s an app called Screen Filter that allows you to apply a transparent black “layer” over the screen, which makes everything on the screen darker. There is a slider that allows you to go as low as 2% brightness, which essentially creates a posterized view of the screen in mostly black.

On an AMOLED screen like the one on my Samsung Galaxy Note, this makes the screen incredibly dim — so dim in fact that if you’re using the Kindle Android app and you select white text on black background, my Note shoots out fewer photons into my eyes than the Kindle Paperwhite set to the lowest brightness setting (which is 0 on the device, since you can’t actually turn the lights completely off on it). And it’s still pretty readable after your eyes have adjusted to it, although you do want to increase the text size a little or you will begin to squint to reduce the glow around the text since your pupils get very large when it’s this dark. To be fair, the Paperwhite comes pretty close in terms of dimness, so it probably doesn’t make a huge difference. And the Paperwhite does provide a nicer, less disruptive reading experience compared to using your always-connected phone. By the way, I don’t own the Kindle Paperwhite, but I was able to test it for a few days. I decided to return it because of a dead ink “pixel”.

Screen Filter works on non-AMOLED screens too, but I find that on a normal LCD, the contrast takes a bigger hit. I tested this on my Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, and it wasn’t nearly as pleasant to read on with the brightness dimmed. Also, being a backlit LCD, it inherently leaks a lot of light regardless of Screen Filter strength. My Note definitely wins the fewest-photons-emitted contest by a large margin compared to the Tab.

So, why is this awesome? My wife normally complains when I’m using my phone in bed (which is a bad habit of mine I admit) because the brightness makes it hard for her to fall asleep. But with my Screen Filter activated, she can hardly even tell I’m using it. Another nice bonus is that you essentially don’t lose any of your dark vision when staring into the screen with the Screen Filter set to 2%.

The downsides of using your phone as a book reader remain though: it only takes one friend to send you a ping, text, Facebook update, or anything else and you’ll quickly get distracted. For maximized reading pleasure, be sure to mute the audio and stay disciplined and never context switch out of the Kindle app. And the downsides of reading in bed remain too: try to be wiser than I am and don’t read for more than an hour. Otherwise you’ll end up like me and stay awake until 3am and complain about having sleep problems when clearly it’s your own fault. I should probably follow Rosana’s advice and get myself a really nice reading chair and put it outside of the bedroom to reduce my problems of falling asleep. I’ll do that some day, I promise.

Happy bedtime reading! Speaking of which, it’s already 12:45 am…

My mobile and desktop browsing habits are very different things

Browsing habits are the kind of things that gradually change over time without you even realizing it. If you look back a year ago, I’m sure some of the most visited websites today weren’t even on the top 20 list then. An obvious example is that quarterly goals page from Q3 2011 that you visited every day for a full quarter, and then suddenly never looked at again.

What’s even more interesting for me is how my mobile browsing habits have gradually changed into something very different from my desktop browsing habits. A couple of years ago, I used to visit roughly the same sites on both devices, but over time I found myself visiting some websites more from my mobile, and other websites more from my desktop computer.

Today, the separation is very clear: I almost exclusively use my desktop computer for work-related browsing (wikis, Etherpads, calendars, reports, etc), and I use my mobile phone mostly for casual browsing (news, social media, tech, blogs, etc). Another separation along the same lines is that I mostly use my desktop computer to write, and I use my mobile phone to read.

This actually makes me a little torn about the Firefox Sync implementation on Android today. On the one hand, I absolutely love the fact that I can have convenient access to all pages I visit on the desktop, and I simply can’t live without the pre-filled passwords. But on the other hand, I’m not sure I’m too crazy about the fact that all of those “Top Sites” are mixed together the way they are on the Awesome Screen. At the end of the day, I find it distracting to see ten different flavors of https://mail.mozilla.com/zimbra/#%5Binsert number here], or twenty different Etherpads or wiki pages all mixed up with the handful of sites that I actually do want to visit from my phone.

This is one of the things that I like about the stock Android browser on my Samsung Galaxy Note: it allows me to define exactly how I want the top bookmarks to look like, even in which order they should appear in the thumbnail grid.

Stock browser's bookmarks grid -- pardon the Swedish and poor reading taste.

Some things that would make my use of Firefox on Android feel more awesome:

  • An intuitive, quick way of arranging my top sites and bookmarks and ensure duplicates aren’t bubbling up at the top.
  • An option to view the top sites as a thumbnail grid instead of a list.
  • An option (or simply changed default) to not show the soft keyboard until you hit the text field again — I just want to click the top site rather than type on the keyboard.

Firefox Awesome Screen

All this said, I don’t know what I’d do without Firefox Sync. It really enables me to accomplish stuff on my phone that I previously had to use my desktop computer for. The only downside, I suppose, is that it also makes it that much easier to switch your mind back into work mode after stumbling on that interesting report, or Etherpad, or wiki page that you’re not supposed to read when trying to wind down after a long workday… :)

Firefox for Android finally ready for prime time!

If you’ve tried Firefox for Android in the past and weren’t impressed, try again today. With a revamped interface built entire from scratch, it’s infinitely faster, renders websites beautifully, and supports Flash (for those who happen to like that).

Promotional Graphic (2)

Sync your mobile and desktop Firefox

If you’re using Firefox on your desktop computer, the first thing you will want to do is to set up Sync so you can synchronize bookmarks, passwords, form data and other settings across your devices. Simply follow the on-screen instructions or check out this step-by-step guide.

Already hungry for more? Get Aurora!

What if you’re already using Firefox and want to get a sneak peek at what’s coming up in the future? Then install Firefox Aurora and use that instead of plain Firefox! Aurora is an experimental branch of Firefox that represents what will eventually appear in a future Firefox release. So by using Aurora, you get to see what awesome things are coming up before mere mortals will benefit from them. They’re generally stable enough that you can use it without any major issues. Besides, if something does go wrong, you can always just switch back to normal Firefox again — you can keep both versions installed on both your computer and phone (though you can’t run them both at the same time, so Quit one before starting the other).

Keep in mind that by using Aurora, you are also encouraged to provide feedback about the experience. If you’re a bit more technical and used to filing bug reports, you can go straight to Bugzilla and submit your feedback that way.

Olympus technical service, color me impressed!

Quick follow-up on last week’s blog post about my bricked E-PM1: despite telling me on the phone that I should be expecting a four week service time, Olympus was able to service my camera within just two business days and have it sent back within a week! I’m impressed.

Surprisingly, they apparently had to repair the “main circuit board” to fix the issue. It really surprises me that a firmware update could have that kind of an impact on the hardware, but maybe this is an indication that there was something wrong with the camera from the very beginning.

Anyway, thanks Olympus for really quick service and for ensuring that I have a working camera over the summer!

Olympus, learn how to use proactive support to cut down costs

Wow, I didn’t even think this was possible in the modern IT world where software is constantly getting more intuitive and user-focused, but apparently it’s still possible to completely brick a modern digital system camera by accident. All it takes is poorly written software in combination with poorly written documentation (and just a second of not paying attention).

As I was packing my suitcase for the upcoming trip to the US the other night, I decided to give the new Olympus firmware a try. Having done the same process in the past with my old E-P1, I already knew that the process is a bit clunky and unintuitive with Olympus software, but I at least had a previous success in my memory, so it felt like an achievable task the night before traveling. (Three hours later, I definitely regretted that choice.)

The flaws in their documentation are obvious:

  • The instructions in the firmware update tool just tell you to plug in the camera to the USB port, but in reality, the camera then prompts you to choose one of three modes. It turns out after some trial and error that the correct mode is the one in the middle of the menu (not the default choice). Pointing this out in the documentation wouldn’t necessarily cut down on their number of support incidents, but it would make for a much smoother product experience and it would reduce the user frustration, which would lead to a closer attention to what’s going on in the process. Crucially, however, this is an indication of a deeper issue at Olympus, which is that there is a disconnect between the developers and the people doing support documentation.
  • After transferring the new firmware to the camera through USB, the update tool tells you that it finished updating the firmware and that you can either click Close to finish, or click the other button (I forget its label) to update the firmware on a different product, e.g a lens or another camera. However, the camera itself simultaneously shows a different set of instructions, or rather cryptic status indications. In reality, the update process is not finished, it’s just the USB transfer of the new firmware that is. Ensuring that the instructions on both screens are consistent would help reduce the likeliness of a user making the wrong choice in the process.

The latter point is where things broke down on my end, because I think I ended up turning the camera off by pressing the power button after having read the instructions on the computer screen to do so, but the camera screen was still showing some blinking icons that I paid little attention to at the time.

Boom. One second of not paying attention — two months without a working camera.

Documentation issues aside, having lead customer support for a major software product for the last five years, I’ve learned the importance of looking beyond documentation and rather focus part of the support efforts on fixing problems in the product itself and tightening up the loop between support and product development. Without this proactive type of support, you’re in trouble. Having gone through this painful experience with my almost brand new camera, I highly suspect that there is a disconnect between the support and development teams at Olympus.

Generally, you should remove as many possible points of user failure in the software itself as part of software design. In the case of the E-PM1, I have to wonder why it’s even possible to press the power button while the thing is updating — it’s an electronic button that they could easily disable during that critical moment, rather than exposing this ridiculously simple way of bricking your camera. I don’t know how many other people have had this problem, but having searched for it online, I know I’m not the only person. Another smart thing would be to ensure that there’s always a recovery bootstrap mode that enables the camera to communicate via the USB interface even after a failed firmware update attempt. That way, it would always be possible to retry and recover.

The brutal fact here is that I now have to send the camera to Olympus. The apathetic support rep that I was talking to on the phone today told me that their average processing time is at least a month due to their high support demand (no kidding!). Since I’ll only be in the Bay Area for a couple of weeks, this means I’m going to be without the camera for at least two months before I’m able to get back here again.

I tried to tell the support rep that I feel really strongly about improving processes like this that touch on customer support, because I have a full team of awesome people at Mozilla that do this for a living, and so I wanted to find the best venue to provide this type of feedback at a level where it would be listened to. He just politely said that he will pass on my feedback to “the customer feedback department” and that was the end of the discussion. Of course, what he really meant was “I’ll put some notes that I wrote into a system that will disappear among other notes that no one here really reads, and your problem won’t be solved proactively because I hardly talk to those that could do anything about this, and honestly I don’t really care either. Have a nice day.”

He didn’t really mean the last part — this is America after all. ;)